Rawlings led Ghana from 1981 to 2001. A former lieutenant in the Ghanaian Air Force, he participated in his first military coup in May 1979. His attempt failed, and he was arrested but later released a few weeks by a group of fellow officers, launching his political career.
Born in Accra to an Ewe mother and a Scottish father, Jerry Rawlings was noticed very early on for his outspokenness and his itch for revolution. A gifted and brilliant young man, he joined the Air Force and within a few years he was promoted to the rank of flight lieutenant (the equivalent of captain in the army).
In May 1979, he took part in his first military coup d’état.
It was a failure: he was arrested, brought before a court-martial – a court in which he chose to defend himself alone – and freed a few weeks later by a group of officers whose common dream was fighting a hierarchy they considered corrupt. Together, the following June, they overthrew Fred Akuffo’s regime for good.
Jerry Rawlings quickly became leader and committed himself to returning the power to the civilians. The promise was kept: general elections were held and, three months later, Rawlings stepped down to make way for Hilla Limann, who had just been elected president. Jerry Rawlings was just over 30 years old and massively popular in Ghana.
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But he won’t remain in the shadows for long. Disgusted by Hilla Limann’s regime, whose corruption and bad governance he criticised, Rawlings took up arms again in December 1981. He overthrew Limann, took over the leadership of the Provisional National Defence Council and established himself in power for a long time.
The beginnings were difficult. Ghana had been facing a severe economic crisis for several years, and Rawlings eventually resolved to implement the IMF’s structural adjustment program.
Politically, the situation was no better: the constitution is suspended, political parties abolished, Parliament dissolved, and human rights abuses committed.
Eventually, however, Ghana regained some normalcy. Under pressure from the opposition and the international community, Jerry Rawlings set his country on the road to democratisation. In 1992, he resigned from the army and founded the National Democratic Congress (NDC).
Democratically elected in 1992, he was re-elected in 1996 for a second term at the head of Ghana.
In 2000, Rawlings was barred by the constitution from running for a second term, so he endorsed his vice-president, John Atta-Mills, to run for another term. Atta-Mills failed to defeat Kufuor, but Rawlings remained the man who kept his promise and bowed out gracefully.
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